To Choose Your Focus You Have to Choose What to Neglect
Despite what every efficiency expert claims, you cannot get everything done. No matter how hard you work, how efficient you are, or even how much you’re able to delegate, you will never do all the things you’d like to because your energy, time and focus are finite.
Once you really get that, the important thing becomes what you pay attention to and what you intentionally, actively, ruthlessly ignore. If you only prioritize without pruning, you will end up reacting to perfectly important and urgent opportunities in a constant cycle of overwhelm. Part of the solution is to replace Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) with the Joy of Missing Out (JOMO), according to the author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.
Neglect the right things
Many busy founders and corporate leaders, myself included, fall in love with whatever time management and productivity systems work best for us. There’s no problem with that, unless you buy into the hype that stringently following your system will enable you to make time for everything you could possibly imagine yourself doing.
The reason that’s a problem, says Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (the amount of time you’ll have if you live to age 80) is that it makes us think we don’t have to choose. We delude ourselves into believing efficiency will carry us into this supernatural state where we get to do everything and be everywhere all in one short lifetime.
But that’s not true. Every minute, we make choices to do this and not that. “The real measure of any time management technique is whether or not it helps you neglect the right things,” Burkeman writes.
What matters most
While that message can at first sound a bit depressing, Burkeman insists it’s ultimately more uplifting, freeing and inspiring than deluding yourself into believing your time and opportunities are limitless. I’m beginning to see why. If you can’t bear the idea of confronting the stringent time limitations placed on every human life, you will be unwilling to make the tough choices that will keep you from chasing someone else’s dreams, or putting off what matters most to “someday.” Embracing your limitations can actually free you from the distraction and “seductive lure of an infinite number of superior imaginary alternatives,” Burkeman says.
How to get there
You don’t need a new app, color-coded index cards or a complicated filing system to heed Burkeman’s advice, although there’s no problem in using any of those tools to stay focused. What you do need is a new philosophy about time. He offers these three steps to get started.
- Pay yourself first in time. Just like the financial advice to take money right off the top of your earnings for savings and investing to make sure it happens, when you take time for your most important priorities first, they are far more likely to happen. “If you plan to spend some of your four thousand weeks doing what matters most to you, then at some point you’re just going to have to start doing it,” Burkeman says. That’s exactly the thinking that emboldened me to finally say goodbye to a stable, growing, lucrative corporate career to pursue my even greater passion of helping women and underrepresented founders start and build their businesses and expand their careers.
- Limit your work in progress. If you ignore the idea that your time is finite, it’s easy to start a million different projects and run yourself ragged in many different directions. Unfortunately, that can lead to a lot of half-finished efforts. Burkeman suggests instead putting an upper limit on the number of initiatives you’ll have going at any one time – perhaps as few as three. The point is to finish what you start (or decide to abandon) before starting something new that will only dilute your focus and resources. An added benefit of this approach is that it forces you to confront your limitations every time you ponder adding something to your list. It makes you consider what you are willing to neglect to take on something new. It also relies on breaking down big initiatives into their smaller component parts or what David Allen of Getting Things Done fame called “the next immediate step.”
- Resist the allure of middling projects. When learning to set boundaries and say no, we often think of prioritizing like cutting away the chaff to get to the wheat. It would be a whole lot easier if all you had to do was cut out the things you don’t really want to do anyway. But what about all those activities, relationships and ideas that do appeal, but just don’t make it into that top sphere where only your sacred choices live? Learning to say no to these things is where intentional neglect shines. This is how you focus on what matters most. Otherwise, it is “. . . the fairly interesting job opportunity, the semi-enjoyable friendship, on which a finite life can come to grief,” Burkeman says.
Our daily experience is one often characterized by overwhelm. From more than 65 readily available brands of pasta sauce to 20 streaming services generating endless content and nearly 1,000 business books published every month, you are already missing out on almost all of what’s theoretically available to you. Choosing what you simply will not pay attention to, and making peace with that, is a skill every finite human needs to thrive.